Twenty-eight years ago this very day, I made my way down a flight of church basement stairs – the longest walk I’ve ever taken – in order to save my life. Although I was confused and terrified, I knew that if I wanted to live I would have to embrace a new way of life that would require soul-shaking honesty, an unsparing personal inventory, and a willingness to make real amends. In short, if I wanted to recover from the disease that had me in its grip, everything would have to change, beginning with my self-delusion and denial – a painful process that was devastating in its demands but, ultimately, liberating.
Walking into that church 28 years ago has everything to do with my walking into this church today.
When Ruby asked me to speak about white silence a couple of months ago, I wanted to say no.
Quite honestly, I would rather speak about almost anything else – the peril of nuclear weapons, the water crisis in Detroit, spiritual activism – anything at all that would keep me swaddled in my soft cocoon of white comfort. Anything that would allow me to remain in that safe place from which I can project a sense of control and competency, even when discussing, as I often do, the racism that undergirds virtually every injustice that exists in our world. Anything that would ward off that white-girl-fear-of-being- judged fragility that comes up when things get too personal.
It’s one thing to talk about structural racism in the classroom as a teacher or about the institutional racism driving water shutoffs on the street as an activist or about white privilege in private conversations with mentors, black and white, but it’s another thing to stand in front of a church and speak with rigorous honesty from my own lived experience.
The discomfort, the real dis-ease, that I felt when Ruby asked me to offer a reflection on a subject that I and all white folks know all too well serves as evidence that white silence is a real thing. My own dis-ease also reveals the distance I have yet to go in my own journey of recovery from racism.
The dis-ease I feel at this moment is not much different in terms of its severity than the dis-ease I experienced 28 years ago when I walked down those church stairs. The shame, the sadness, the confusion, the wanting to get it right but not knowing how, and, most of all, the inner knowledge that delusion and denial and cowardice and a resistance to vulnerability are at the heart of this dis-ease, a dis-ease that is noxious and deadly, a dis-ease that thrives on deep denial and an adherence to secrecy that keeps us locked in sanctuaries of silence.
I have come to believe that to be white in this country is to be either a racist in denial, a racist by choice, or a racist in recovery. As simple as that.
Those of us who are white have been swimming all our lives in an ocean of white supremacy that is so pervasive, so omnipresent, so deep that we don’t even know we are wet. But that is no excuse. One can no longer claim innocence . . . if one ever could. No one can feign ignorance. Say, “I don’t know.”
To say one doesn’t know, is really to say one refuses to look. We call this denial, knowing full well that once one looks, once one sees, one cannot un-see, meaning one is then responsible.
The time is long overdue to step ashore, find our voices, and then use them to shut down the siren song of silence that has kept so many of us white folk mute as a tomb.
It’s funny – no tragic – how white folks love to grab the microphone, be out in front, run the show until it comes to having to get real about issues of race. Until another black body lies dead on the street. And another. And another. And another. And another. Then it’s silence. Deafening silence. Silence more ear-splitting than a gunshot. Dead. Silence.
It would be a temptation today to speak about white silence in theoretical terms as an academic. To retreat into jargon and analysis and a cool objectivity, one of the great hallmarks of privilege and a frequent hiding place for white folks who are neglecting their inner work while feigning deep solidarity. It would be easy to quote Ralph Ellison or to lean into the wisdom of Audre Lorde to let myself and other white folks off the hook, once again placing the burden on black voices to do the heavy lifting.
We who are white know that we do not need a college diploma to understand white silence – we are experts. Well-practiced pros. Masters of the art. Many of us are committed – often deeply and sincerely – to taking on the systems and structures of oppression and bringing down the powers and principalities, but just . . . don’t . . . make . . . us . . . share . . . our . . . own . . . stories. Our own vulnerability. Our own dis-ease. I have been guilty of this and apologize to my students for offering critical analyses, albeit solid and crucial, while withholding my life, feeding into the lie that we can get to beloved community through sterile abstract theory while leaving our souls and our stories at home.
The second temptation would be to present myself as a blue-ribbon ally – the one who stands above the white, unwashed fray. The one who really gets it. The one who retreats not into silence but into a superficial, ahistorical stance that projects a dishonest image of the white person without a past. The one afraid that wading too deeply into the polluted waters of her own enculturated white supremacy might mean that God’s gonna trouble the water in ways that are disturbing and unfamiliar. The one who finds a way to sidestep the baptism of self-recognition by taking everyone else’s inventory while sidestepping her own.
These are but two of the more common temptations to which I think we white people are prone when faced with the task of sharing stories around our own white silence. As I have learned, however, we are as sick as our secrets. So today, I have asked for the grace to be delivered from the many temptations that would keep me from being authentic as I share some of my own story and a few reflections on white silence.
I was raised downriver working class in an a community that was virtually all white. With the exception of the Italian Catholics across the street and my family, virtually everyone around me was from the South; in fact, many were from a particular county in Kentucky. I grew up hearing and deeply internalizing the taunts that we were nothing more than “white trash from Taylor-tucky.”
Carrying both shame and anger, I developed a class consciousness very early on that later evolved into deep insecurity and a full-blown resentment toward the rich. I didn’t figure out until much later that, despite the hurt around class, that adjective “white” before the word “trash” carries more weight and privilege than I could possibly have imagined back then.
I will never forget our family reunions held each summer in Dearborn – my siblings and I sitting outside a chain-link fence, victims of Orville Hubbard’s “Dearborn Residents Only” policy, watching my cousins from Dearborn – the chosen ones – splashing around in the park’s public pool while we looked on with envy and rage. I was completely oblivious to the fact that this policy was designed to keep black children out of Dearborn’s pools. We working-class white kids were merely the collateral damage of the war that has been waged against people of color in this nation since its inception.
Back then, I seethed with anger at what I perceived as a personal class injustice; today I regret the fact that I didn’t have a context and didn’t have any black friends with whom to organize against this blatant discrimination. That I hadn’t a clue that those in power don’t mind throwing poor white people under the bus in order to keep black people off the bus. That capitalism itself depends on keeping us separated.
My world was almost exclusively white and working class and very small. My family, while certainly not into recognizing, naming, unpacking, or challenging white privilege, refrained from explicit racism.
There was one exception, however, that is hard for me to share, but the details of our lives are what they are. We were at the circus once when a family member whom I adore, passed me a bag of mixed nuts, and told me to try one large, brown nut that he referred to as a “N-word toe.” I remember feeling confused, shocked, disturbed. But, as I have done so often in my life, I swallowed my shame and retreated into cowardly and awkward silence, filing the incident in the folder marked denial.
Like most kids my age, whiteness was something one never thought about. It was normative.
Although I cringe sharing this, I saw nothing wrong with the nickname I was given by some of my classmates in elementary school, Kimba the White Lion, a popular cartoon character back in the 1960’s. As if the name alone weren’t bad enough, listen to the words of the show’s theme song, words that I merrily sang along with as a young schoolgirl:
Who lives in the deepest darkest Africa? Who’s the one who brought the jungle fame? Who’s the king of animals in Africa? Kimba the white lion is his name. When we get in trouble and we’re in a fight, Who’s the one who won’t just turn and run? Who believes in doing good and doing right? Kimba the white lion is the one.
The colonizing spirit, the great white rescuer, the virtuous white hero, the one who takes away the agency of others . . . Kimba the white girl who had to learn to confront all these tendencies in herself at a much later age, tendencies that were inculcated in a thousand different ways, some subtle, some blatant.
As a young kid, I was highly idealistic, serious, a reader with an innate proclivity for justice who would ride my bike to the library and read books and newspapers for hours. It was there that I first encountered what is now called white privilege in the news articles written about the civil rights movement. At home, I would see these same images on the television screen – images of dogs and batons and water hoses and little black girls about my age in far different circumstances than my own.
This was perhaps the first time I felt guilty and responsible and confused about my whiteness. I wanted to march in the streets like some of the other white people I saw in the pictures walking arm in arm with Dr. King, but I was still in elementary school. I didn’t know any kids of color and I was afraid that the white kids would find me weird. I held this desire close to my heart in much the same way I hid my desire to stand with the draft card-burning priests I saw in the same newspapers. Little did I know that these desires, these promptings of the spirit, came from a good place that would much later become part of my life.
In the aftermath of the Detroit rebellion – what we white folks called “the riot” back then – our family piled into the station wagon and drove down smoldering streets filled with charred buildings. There was no commentary, no context, no conversation. I recall the silence – not an angry silence, more a contemplative silence, that I still do not know how to decipher. Both of my parents grew up in Detroit, and I don’t know if it was sadness or nostalgia or resignation. I just recall the silence.
I also recall around that time, seeing pictures of edgy-looking black men in berets and leather coats, black men with names like H. Rap, Eldridge, and Huey and trying to understand why they were so angry – not with fear or judgment – but with a child’s curiosity and questions about what white people did to make them so mad.
And then, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and not a word – not a single word – being spoken about it in school. Just another routine school day for the white kids. Business as usual. The silence of our school – tone deaf to the times and indifferent to injustice – stood as the epitome of institutionalized white supremacy.
Total white silence until, of course, black people took to the streets and then it sounded like a Pentecostal free-for-all, a full-out gabfest among white folks clucking their tongues and talking about black anger.
Today it is much the same.
What does happen to a dream deferred?
Why are people so angry?
I haven’t asked that question for a very, very long time, and when some of my students ask that question in response to something they’ve read, I know it’s coming from a place of unexamined or resisted privilege. When I hear that question today, I pray that the one asking it will be given the grace to drink from the cup of injustice long enough to get a taste of righteous anger. Will come close enough to struggle to feel the holy fire of outrage burning in his bones. Will get close enough to other people’s lives to break out of the stifling cell of civility and toxic “niceness” that imprisons us and keeps the wheels of injustice turning.
If anything has pulled me out of my white silence, in fact, it is probably anger. Fueled by months of bullying, I recall going toe-to-toe with the head of the college Young Republicans at the local university where I was editor of the student newspaper. In response to a dance being hosted by the Black Student Association, he and his buddies planned a counter event that was a cruel and thinly-veiled racist effort to mock the music of the black students.
By that point, I had had enough of the arrogance, the misogyny, the racism, the nasty classism. Although the black students certainly didn’t need me to speak on their behalf, I found my voice that day on a campus where, as “white trash” among middle and upper-middle-class white kids, I allowed my own sense of inferiority to silence me.
I also began to learn there what it means to work in coalitions, to have one another’s back, to understand theory, and to build relationships with people outside of my white, downriver bubble.
Navigating college was excruciating in many ways. I struggled with identity and authenticity, developing a cynical, tough girl exterior to cope with those same kids who gloated over the fact that the swimming pool belonged to them. It was, in fact, the black and Middle Eastern students and other working class white kids around whom I felt comfortable. It was during my college years that I began to learn that while we work side by side, it is not the job of people of color to protect me from other white folks, although many, out of friendship and sheer human decency, did.
It was in college that I became conscious of voice and the power of both listening and speaking. It was a process of learning that continues today as I reflect on the two different kinds of white silence: fear-based silence and disdainful silence.
Certainly, white silence borne of fear and insecurity is easier to deal with than white silence borne of indifference or disdain since one wills to speak, while the other chooses not to.
The first is the white silence that wants to speak but is so afraid of offending, of getting it wrong, of exposing oneself to criticism that it remains mute. In other words, it’s all about me and how I’ll be perceived or judged or critiqued. This is the kind of white silence that stammers and speaks in fits and starts in order to dodge potential land mines. There is usually a lot of shame and projection and deflection and prickly sensitivity going on here. An almost existential terror of not getting it right.
Most white folks, if we are honest, have been here more often than we may want to admit, but this is not acceptable. Silence really is violence and there is a point at which one realizes that it is better to misspeak, to make a few missteps, than not to speak at all. Better to stand corrected and learn than to verbally duck out.
And this is where relationships come into play. All authentic justice work is rooted in relationships – real relationships – relationships that grow over time and include accountability, time spent together, and a commitment to the work of racial justice for the long haul, recognizing that one of the privileges of being white is having the freedom to veer in and out of movement work, to make the struggle for racial justice an erratic hit-and-run affair.
The white silence that wants to speak needs to learn that to hold back out of fear is to leave others guessing where you stand. It needs to learn that there is a damaging power differential when another person puts herself out there while you withhold your heart, your ideas, your words. White silence in white circles can actually be used, intentionally or not, to maintain the status quo, serving as a seal of approval in situations that are unacceptable. An imprimatur of injustice.
As for the silence of indifference or disdain, that is a harder nut to crack. One can only hope that these folks will hit some kind of bottom or have some kind of encounter or experience that will shake them out of their bitter self-imposed silence and isolation.
These are the ones who are most deeply wounded and dangerous. These are the soul-sick ones who when they do speak, express themselves in ways similar to the guy I took on in college, whether they are talking about African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, or poor folk. Their silence speaks as loudly as their words and is mean-spirited, cruel, hard of heart. We must both challenge and pray for them. Take them on without writing them off.
I started today by talking about the need for rigorous honesty, and doing one’s own inventory, and recovering from the dis-ease that surrounds conversations about race.
I wanted to publicly share my inventory with you today so that you can hold me accountable when I veer off into theory or when I think I am better than those “other” white people who aren’t as enlightened as I am.
I wanted to open the door to sharing stories as a way of leading with the heart as we do this work.
Today I shared only a few stories, but I have many more to share . . . embarrassing stories like the time I broke down during a graduate school class, sobbing that I hated being white, that I wanted to cash in my privilege, that I felt like a spiritual orphan. Life-giving stories like meeting my family in Greece and knowing for the first time who my people are and why the notion of “whiteness” is such a false and dangerous construct. Inspiring stories like my students initiating a “Why We Say Black Lives Matter” forum in response to some of their classmates who don’t get the subtext of the “all lives matter” trope.
And I know that all of you have stories to share.
While we are working for systemic change, we must also do the inner and interpersonal work. The violence that is white silence can be reduced if we can sit at the table with one another and share our stories.
28 years ago I learned that if I were to really recover from the disease that had me almost down for the count, I would need to carry the message of recovery I was given to others. Once the denial is broken, and we tell on ourselves, and we experience at least a semblance of an awakening, it’s time to move into action.
It has become clear to me that, given where our country finds itself today, I need to go back home and talk to my white brothers and sisters and let them know that it’s not African-Americans or Mexicans or Muslims or gay folks who are keeping them out of the swimming pool.
Likewise, those of you who come from wealthier neighborhoods need to break your white silence to address the well-heeled racism that is so often laid exclusively at the feet of the working class. It may be a little more polite and gussied up, but it’s just as deadly – maybe more so since racism plus resources always spells trouble.
This is the work of recovery. The violence reduction work of putting an end to the silence. It’s easy to break the silence when we are sitting safely in our silos with our like-minded friends, but real recovery asks us to leave those rooms and take some real risks -whether those risks are taken in the union hall or the lecture hall.
We are soul sick and in desperate need of recovery. The denial is killing us.
We have work to do – all of us – if we ever hope to free ourselves from the deadly disease of racism and our deathly fear of talking about the things that really matter.
Reflection given at First Unitarian-Universalist Church, Detroit, Nov. 27, 2016 and published on Radical Discipleship, Dec. 22, 2016. An audio version of the talk can be found at http://www.1stuu.org/Worship/sermonAudio.php.